What exactly is meant by nature and what are we supposed to do there? There is a lovely small book called Forest Bathing by Dr. Qing Li which lays out how one can best interact with nature, and what the benefits are. For those of us that need some data to back up our behavior, Dr. Qing is your guy, as he has quite a bit of nature effect data in this humble book.
The idea of what counts as effective nature is something that is often misinterpreted. There is big, massive awe-inspiring nature — the base of Everest, Serengeti plains, redwood forests of the northwest US — but is that what it takes to get the positive effects of being in nature? Getting to those sorts of places is not something most mortals can do on a regular, or maybe even a once-in-a-lifetime, basis. I have been lucky to have been to some of these spots, and yes, they absolutely work as a reset of our tiny humble humanity in the face of massive nature.
Observing a tree or small garden can reconnect us to something greater than ourselves
But there is another sort of nature that also works quite well: average nature. Small breaks in the workday to simply stand and observe a tree, or a small garden, are actually highly effective as a reset for the brain reconnecting us to something greater than ourselves.
When I was staying in Utah, just out back of my writing area there was a small stand of trees. There was nothing remarkable or Nat Geo about them, just an average group of local trees. With the coming of spring they became surrounded by weedy undergrowth that was between ankle and shoulder high. This alone was remarkable as none of these were here when we arrived in snowy March. Until I was paying attention, I had no idea how quickly a barren unremarkable piece of land could become deeply dense with plant life.
Just standing in a thicket cleared open passages to ideas and creative solutions
A couple of times a day I would find myself standing in this area just watching the way the leaves moved, listening to the birds, and marveling that here, feet from our building, there was an entire world completely devoid of humans or their inventions. Of course, should I have walked another 30 ft, I would have seen past this small plot of verdant life to see a semi-large mountain in the background — some above-average nature.
But I found that just standing in this thicket a couple of times a day had the most remarkable effect upon my thinking. It cleared open passages to ideas and creative solutions that had not previously been there. It reminded me of my martial arts training, that for a fight to happen there needs to be 2 opposing forces. If one side becomes like water, the other’s force is meaningless. If the one force is my need to problem solve, and the other some internal resistance to that, when the resistance is melted by the sights and sounds of my average nature experience, then the ideas are free to flow in.
Gardens, parks, random trees, a small pond, even a good cloud formation will do the trick. American cities, and particularly American property developers, don’t seem to understand the value of a vibrant tree canopy for our quality of life. Trees are often seen as either a menace to power lines and sidewalks or as an unnecessary developer cost. A pet peeve of mine are the infant trees that a developer will half-heartedly install at a new build project as if saying at least they tried and in 50 years it will all be wonderful. When I now see a development that has made some more effective effort in this direction, I think, humm, here is someone who understands that living well is more than just having 4 walls, a roof and good wifi. Even average nature adds value to everything we do.